New York to London: Justin Berkmann on the History of the Ministry of Sound
The DJ and club owner discusses the inspiration for and building of the famed London club
The birth of the Ministry of Sound would have been impossible if it weren’t for Justin Berkmann. In the late ’80s, Berkmann was an inexperienced 20-something DJ with a passion for house, but after finding inspiration at New York’s Paradise Garage during its heyday, he returned to London and enlisted entrepreneurs James Palumbo and Humphrey Waterhouse in creating a paradise of his own.
After the Ministry opened in 1991, it wasn’t long before he began convincing icons like Larry Levan and Francois Kevorkian to come out of retirement and fly out to London to step behind the decks of the club’s impeccable soundsystem.
It might be hard to believe that the very first London club dedicated to house (which eventually expanded into a full-blown multimedia enterprise) was born out of a derelict parking garage. But nearly three decades later, the Ministry is as vital as ever. Berkmann shared the story of how it came to be with Bill Brewster, from his early days spent frequenting parties like Family Funktion and Shake ’N’ Fingerpop, to meticulously designing one of the most revolutionary clubs in all of London.
I got into dance music primarily through school friends of mine. A mate of mine was very good friends with Matt Rayner, who was the organizer of Family Funktion, part of the team that used to work with Shake ’N’ Fingerpop and Soul II Soul, which was about ’84, ’85. The innocent days. I DJed once at Heaven. It was a complete disaster, I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know the difference between hip-hop and house, really didn’t have a clue. It was great, considering I played Heaven on a main night. Then I went to New York in the spring of ’86. I got to the Garage September, October of that year.
It took two attempts to get in there. I didn’t get in to start with. Then I got in on a Friday, which was the straight night. At that time Larry [Levan] was playing on the Fridays. The music was incredible, but the scene was hard and being one of the very, very few white people in there, I was given quite a hard ride. So then I tried to get in there on a Saturday because I loved the club and the soundsystem. And after being refused quite a few entrances, finally, [after] camping it up massively, we got in there. It was paradise. It really was a Paradise Garage. It was the best club I’d ever been to. I was a wine merchant up until that point, and I’d been bartending to survive. From the first Saturday night I went in there, I pretty much wanted to be a DJ. I wanted to be a DJ because I wanted to be a pop star and all that kind of stuff. The main focus was to play at the Garage on that system. That was what I wanted to do.
Bought some decks and a mixer, started buying records, you know, the usual story. Going to the Garage and listening to Larry, getting a bit confused about what he was playing sometimes, ’cause sometimes he was really rank, mainly because he was so fucked up he didn’t know what was going on. Equally, there were times when he was brilliant. I spent a lot of times listening to the dance parties that were on KISS and WBLS: Regisford, Humphries, Merlin Bobb, Bobby Konders, Kenny Carpenter, those sort of people. That’s where the training was: recording the shows, listening to them and then going to the Paradise Garage religiously Saturday nights.
Bringing the New York Sound to London
Then the Garage closes, and it feels like New York’s died, or one of your best friends has died. It completely ruined people’s lives for a while. The Garage really was the greatest club of all time. At least the greatest club I’ve ever been to. When I say that now, I think that most people who were really there in the scene, in the center of it, used to say that the Loft was better. I DJed at a later version of the Loft in the ‘90s. I come back here in February ’88, five months after the Garage closes. So I started doing gigs here and I started noticing the style of DJs at that time and there were very few people who were mixing properly at that time, there’s a few doing it a tiny bit. But the only DJ that was really playing good, solid New York was Colin Faver. There may have been others, but I didn’t hear them. He was really way ahead of everyone else in terms of his style.
I did a few raves. MFI, Hud Club. A lot of people at the time considered the original acid house party the Hedonism parties: Hedonism II, III and so on (there was no Hedonism I). Of the DJs that are around now, I’d say at least 50% were at those parties. I played, Colin played, Jazzie B or H from Soul II Soul. Because I’d been working on the gay scene a bit, I started doing Heaven Garage. Before that they’d only been playing Hi-NRG. It was around the time Spectrum was starting there. I started in March, 1988. I was there two years, and we got a nice crowd going there. Initially, it just was me there, then David Inches got nervous because my music was a bit too deep and a bit too subtle for the London crowd. Acid and rare groove were the sounds of that time and deep was very underground, and I was playing deep. So to get in the acid sound, he brought Colin Hudd, then he got rid of me and put Daz Saund in, and the concept of Garage went out of the window.
Finding His Crowd
About 18 months in, I had the crowd I wanted. Very similar to the Garage, an element of women, an element of straight, but essentially black and gay. It worked. Started to get into the straight scene more, but slowly, slowly. Because nobody knew who I was, I just appeared on the scene as this DJ, experienced and trained in New York, with a fucking bad attitude. I’d come back with a bad New York attitude and I found it difficult to get work. An English accent with a New York attitude – people really couldn’t get their heads around it.
Creating London’s Very Own Paradise
Then I wanted and needed to build a Paradise Garage in London. That was the crucial move. London didn’t have a really, really good club. The only clubs were either old school type of clubs like Maximus. Or they were restaurants and bars being used as clubs, like Turnmills. The only club that was relatively up to date was Heaven. But that was a ‘70s/‘80s club, and we wanted an ‘80s/‘90s club. So that’s how the Ministry project started.
I was living in Sydenham at the time, and I met a guy through some old school friends called Ray Maudsley. I used to go and hang out at his place because he always had a bit of puff. After a few joints, we’d be talking, and I’d tell him about the Paradise Garage. We’d go to clubs together and we’d talk about this dream of putting a PG together. We came up with some amazingly mad ideas, most of them completely useless.
A girl moved in called Lisa Smalley. She was working at Legends, and Palumbo’s working around the corner at Morgan Grenfell. Always has his lunch at the same place in Legends. Met Lisa. Lisa says I’ve got these two mates and they’ve got some great ideas, and being an entrepreneur and wanting to get out of the business he was in, he says, “Let me meet them.” He meets Maudsley to start off with and we were selling Purdey’s at the time, which wasn’t a club drink then, just Holland and Barrett. We wanted to get health drinks into the clubs. He wasn’t interested in the health stuff, but when he talked to him about the club, he was very interested, so Ray said you’ve got to meet my friend who’s the DJ who had the idea. So eventually we met James, who put us on to Humphrey almost immediately. Humphrey was Palumbo’s personal assistant after they left school. James was a landowner. He has a lot of property in Kensington, and he buys and sells antique cars. Humphrey was administrating.
Humphrey was put in charge of a new project that came up. We started working together, got on really well, and the project, through the troughs and the highs, got to where we opened the Ministry.
An English accent with a New York attitude – people really couldn’t get their heads around it.
Location, Location, Location
The first thing was to find a site. We looked at various sites. TGI Fridays on Bedford Street [in Covent Garden], they have a basement there, and they put it out to tender. So we put up a whole plan. We made some drawings, put a really wicked proposal in and went in to bid, and then they pulled the site. But it was good practice for us, so when we came up with a proper site, we came up with it literally by driving by it. We’d been everywhere and we’d nearly given up. I remember I was driving home at night and I saw the front and thought, “That looks wicked. That’s the place.” It had an interesting front. The whole point of the club was that it had to be interesting. It had to have flavor, had to be really cool. Got in to look around and saw it was just used to park six cars and a dozen pigeons. It wasn’t the only site we were looking at. There was one in Red Cross Street, which is now being converted into the Jubilee Line extension. So it ended up being the frontrunner, despite it being a bit pricey.
The planning was a bit difficult. They gave us a restriction, but we got through that. We could only open till two or something like that. The main problem was getting a license, because it was what was, in effect, a 24-hour music and dance license. Humphrey and I went out and interviewed loads of licensing solicitors, planning people, everyone. We picked up Julian Skeens; very young, totally on the ball. Within two meetings, he sussed out completely what we were trying to do. And after an incredible session at Southwark Council that went into the night, we got the license. Two weeks later, Turnmills got the same license, but because they were already open, they could put it into use immediately, whereas we had nothing built.
Getting Clearance from the Cops
In the license meeting there were two hearings: one for us, and one for Clink Street. The police had really done a comprehensive surveillance on Clink Street saying that there were all these acid house people taking drugs and dealing going on outside. It was classic. There was an African woman on the council wearing traditional costume; excellent outfit, difficult to miss. So the police were asked to identify what ravers were, how they could identify a drug-taking raver from a normal person. They said, “Well, they wear fluorescent clothes, really loud dress.” And the African woman said, “What, like me?” They were really blown on that. Clink Street was refused, because they had so many holes in their arguments. But when we came up, the police were already looking a bit stupid, and we came up with a bulletproof argument. We pre-empted everything they could possibly throw at us, so we got it. I think I walked out of there about four in the morning.
Then the rest was the construction, which was done by a Birmingham group who worked round the clock and built it in about 12 weeks. The main construction problem was the box, because the Ministry has a glass ceiling and we had a sound system going in there that was capable of 140 dB. That’s Concorde taking off at ten feet. We had to construct this huge magnetic thing with massive RSJs inside. That, along with the soundsystem, was the main cost.
Designing an Epic Soundsystem
Richard Long died in the mid-‘80s, but due to his incredible genius, he designed the Bertha, which is the sub-bass box in 1974; still the best box around, Cerwin-Vega still have a copy of it. Any GSA system, when it’s tuned right, will blow any other system out of the water. So Richard was dead, but I spoke to Kenny, one of the associates, who was kind of going out by then, so I spoke to his assistant, Austin Derrick, who was carrying the torch at that point. At that time, he worked with a company called Dakota, who were an expensive domestic hi-fi installer. We got him to spec up a system. My idea for the Ministry was purely 100% soundsystem first, lights second, design third. In that order; usually the inverse of everyone else’s idea. They came over and set the system up.
The one experience I’ll never forget was the first time I ever played a record on it, because this was the moment I’d been waiting for. From the moment I’d walked into the Paradise Garage that first time, this was the end of the cycle. And it was as good as I expected it to be and I started to get fully addicted to it. It’s like getting a job on a Formula One crew with Williams. That was the ultimate.
The original concept of the Ministry was one sound, except in the VIP. The concept was Paradise Garage and Area with a sprinkling of English clubs. Garage for the sound, Area for the monthly changing theme. You had the cinema like the Garage, the VIP area. As far as I know, there wasn’t much of a VIP area at the Garage, apart from the DJ booth. I thought we’d have one because London needed it and I had an old school friend of mine to run it, which was very successful. He was just a full-on nutter up there. Loads of trash music, like Sinatra and Abba. The DJ booth was out of the way, with just a slit, which was a bit of problem because the DJs couldn’t hear the sound. We rectified that after about four or five months by opening the space and building a shelf, which we stuck the console on. Everyone says that the club was the best when the booth was up there.
Lessons from Larry Levan
There were a lot of DJs playing and I felt that they were playing the game without the rulebook. If I could get these guys over they could educate the DJs, the crowd, the works. They created the sound and they could teach us. I got the education of a lifetime. I got Levan over and he taught me so much. What he taught me was sound. Before Levan, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was playing some bollocks, and he came on and the first track was “Should Have Been You” by Gwen Guthrie. The soundsystem sounded like it had previously been switched off and he switched it on. It was that clear; that much of a difference. The sun came out.
We brought him over for three days and he stayed for three months. He arrived eight days late with no records. I was like, “Larry, where are your records?” He said, “I haven’t got any.” “No records?” “I’ve sold them all.” He’d sold all of his records. He had a massive heroin problem at that stage and he’d regularly do his wages in gear before he finished playing. And he’d sell his record collection on a regular basis. His friends would go the market and see it for sale, rebuy it, and then he’d resell it. In the end they gave up. So he arrived in London with no records, eight days late. He played that night totally with other people’s records. There were people there bitching about the club saying he didn’t play, he was asleep.
He taught me the texture to sounds. He said to me, “What you’ve got to do is take a trip, play on the GSA system with the bass and treble and you’ll be fine.” I did at the next members party and even people who hated my music were saying, “Justin, you’re playing like a don tonight.”
You could be dancing there and you’d turn round, there would be Eddie Murphy dancing away. It really was the hub of the New York industry.
The Legacy of Paradise Garage
What do you remember about the Garage?
Everything and nothing. I remember the whole experience of going there. In those days, I was 23, and I’d just discovered narcotics. I’d have a disco nap, having worked in the restaurant during the day, then get up about two in the morning and go down there. Initially, getting the membership was difficult because it was gay and they weren’t into having any straight men there. But because we went through the thing of camping it up for them, I think they thought it would be okay for the place.
You’d walk through this little doorway through a little detector, and there would be a desk. There was a black guy, with little round John Lennon glasses and a backwards baseball hat. He was the guy who would say yes or no. You’d go past him through another doorway and there would be this ramp; jet black with egg strobes flickering in series upwards. There would be a queue with about 20 to 30 people waiting. At the top of this queue there were two little openings for paying. On the left hand side, there was one of the kitchen boards with the plastic letters you lost in. That would have: “Tonight…” It wouldn’t list the DJ, just the PA. And if there was no PA, it would just say “Summer Night Party.” No big details, nothing. You walked in and there was an anteroom, black with very low lighting, a doorway to the left with another anteroom with six openings for the coat check.
Right outside there, there was a small room which was four changing booths, which was used a lot. People would go there from work, or would go to work afterwards, and they would just go in there in their shorts and go and dance. There was no shower. The bathrooms were unisex. If you went straight on, there was the original dancefloor which was turned into the Buddha Room, which was backlit with UV lighting through these glass bricks, and a screen with a buddha on top of a pillar. Seats around the edge. It was the one part of the club that was light. Then, the room you walked into from there was the main dancefloor. The main dancefloor had six stacks, and the lighting rig was wicked, sheer disco-style. The dance floor always had talcum powder on it. Between the two sets of speakers, there were tunnels that went off at a 45-degree angle into the bar area. The bar was Parr lamp lit and black-walled with banquette seating, which changed every week so people didn’t have their corners marked out. There was a big long bar and you could see into the back of the DJ booth from there, which was nice. And the bar was free. Free juice, free water, coffee, biscuits and fruit. Then in the corner was the cinema. The nice thing about the cinema was they would show first-run movies. Go through the little doorway in there and up some stairs and you were on to the roof garden. It was open spring, summer and autumn. Very simple; wooden benches and a central reservation with a small fountain. You could hear the music, since it was built above the bar area.
There was this guy Eddie – this short, bald, mixed-race guy. He would stand onstage with a torch and a microphone and lip-sync every song that was played throughout the night. He looked like Buster Bloodvessel from Bad Manners. That was a TV show on its own. I saw him week in, week out. Eventually I saw him at the bar and I was like, “You’re wicked man, I see you every week. What are you on?” And he was totally straight, not a drug in his body. Presumably he’d already done them all. You could be dancing there and you’d turn round, there would be Eddie Murphy dancing away. It really was the hub of the New York industry.
No one cool would get there until about 4 AM. We got there at two, because we were addicts, and we would generally stay there until the end, which was anywhere between two and five in the afternoon. We’d usually go to Trax after, which was a much, much more hardcore place. More white; more of a Special K place.
I remember Lace’s “Can’t Play Around” was a massive track. That was the upside. The downside was when Larry used to play bad. And then there were times when he used to play really weird. One of the things about Larry that has to be said is that he’s one of the few DJs that used to play a story. Records would relate to each other in order. One record would be answering the previous one, in terms of the vocals and the sense of it, and he would tell a series of stories through the night.